Turkish activists decry attack on press freedom as journalists stand trial
Charges include claims that Cumhuriyet journalists helped the separatist Kurdistan Workers party and Glen movement
The trial of 17 reporters and executives from Cumhuriyet, one of Turkeys last standing opposition newspapers, is set to begin on Monday with rights activists decrying the continuing muzzling of free speech in one of the worlds largest jailers of journalists.
The charges include accusations that the newspapers journalists aided the separatist Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) and the Fethullah Glen movement, which is widely believed in Turkey to have orchestrated last years coup attempt, and complaints of irregularities in the elections of the organisations board of executives.
Rights activists say the trial is an assault on freedom of expression and the accusations are absurd, because Cumhuriyet, the countrys newspaper of record that is committed to secularism, has long warned of the dangers of the Glen movement, which itself has long been at odds with the PKK.
They argue that the other charges are an attempt at replacing the newspapers board of directors with government appointees more pliable to the ruling partys influence.
I have been a journalist for a long time and have dealt with this for a long time, said Aydn Engin, a veteran journalist with Cumhuriyet who is also standing trial on Monday, but had been released for health reasons. I will say that I am ashamed and in agony for my country because of these irrational accusations, he said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party have, for years worked to dismantle or co-opt Turkeys free press. That crackdown has accelerated in the year since last Julys coup, with more than 150 journalists believed to be behind bars in Turkey, the highest in the world ahead of China and Egypt.
As of March this year, 173 media outlets had been shut down, including newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites and news agencies. More than 2,500 journalists have been laid off as part of the closures and 800 have had their press cards revoked, according to the Republican Peoples party (CHP), the main opposition bloc.
The government has also exerted pressure on media outlets that do not toe the official line by pressuring advertisers not to do business with them and pursuing cases of defamation, or by slapping them with large, unpayable fines. After media outlets that once belonged to the Glen movement were seized, the government-appointed trustee boards that have transformed those newspapers and TV stations into a loyalist press.
These loyalist media outlets are often referred to as penguin media because a TV station that was fearful of antagonising the government during the Gezi protests of 2013 aired a documentary about penguins instead of broadcasting the protests.
That threat of a trustee board hangs over Cumhuriyet, a newspaper that was founded in 1924 and is the only serious newspaper in circulation that is vehemently opposed to government policies. It has described the crackdown after the coup in which the government dismissed or detained tens of thousands of civil servants, police and military officers, academics, judges and journalists as a witch-hunt, and has repeatedly criticised Erdoan as an authoritarian attempting to destroy democracy.
Erdoan has described democracy as a train before, said Engin, referring to a quote by the president that described democracy as a train that one can get off from once you reach you destination. Its going to be worse for Cumhuriyet. Maybe it will be a shut down, a quick and painless death, or we will suffocate slowly.
The newspaper has also joined calls for a ceasefire and peaceful resolution to the conflict with the PKK at a time when the government had opted for a security-focused response amid heightened tensions. The former editor-in-chief, Can Dundar, is in exile after being prosecuted for a 2014 article that revealed the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) was sending weapons across the border into Syria under the guise of humanitarian aid, a story that the authorities say was leaked by Glenist conspirators.
On Monday, a week of hearings is expected to begin in the Cumhuriyet case against 17 of the newspapers journalists and executives. The case will commence with a reading out of the indictment and opening defense statements, and they expect for the presiding judge to decide whether to release the defendants on bail by Friday.
This trial offers the government another opportunity to change course in its campaign against Turkeys independent media, said Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer with P24, an organisation that advocates for press freedom and supports Turkish journalists on trial. Journalism is not a crime. Prosecutors should stop dressing up legitimate criticism as terrorism and harassing journalists through the courts.
Blent zdoan, the managing editor of Cumhuriyet, said in an interview with the Guardian that the trial was not just about press freedom, but about the governments campaign in the aftermath of the coup more broadly.
Its not just a struggle for free press, he said. Our arrested colleagues are people of a high moral and intellectual calibre. Its for everyone who lost their jobs, those who have been on hunger strike. Theyre struggling for both of us. Thats why I believe its a new start.
The arrest of journalists has earned Ankara criticism from abroad. Late last month, the UN human rights councils working group on arbitrary detentions issued a legal opinion arguing that the arrest of the Cumhuriyet staff contravened the universal declaration of human rights and was arbitrary. The panel of experts called on the Turkish government to release the journalists.